Women and Writing

 Woolf's wonderful essay


Woolf’s wonderful essay

During the women’s movement in the late 60s, a poet of one name, Alta, asked this question: “How often have we had clean sheets and nothing on sheets of paper?”

No internet in those days, no digital journals. Shameless Hussy, Alta’s feminist magazine, was mimeographed, stapled and arrived in the U.S. mail. The issue in which I had a poem featured a black and white centerfold photo of Alta herself, wearing nothing but a sanitary napkin and belt, her thumb hooked lasciviously beneath the elastic strap at her hip. Young women don’t even know what I’m talking about.

The photo shocked and delighted me. Alta was not gorgeous nor was she model-thin. Nice breasts. Curvy. She was a healthy American woman making a statement about our attitudes toward womanhood. Right on. I stopped wearing a bra immediately. That didn’t last long, now that I look back on it. Much that I thought of as permanent turns out to have been ephemeral when I look back on it.

Alta enlivened feminist issues for me. I discovered A Room of One’s Own. And Tillie Olsen’s Silences. Women and writing was the slice of the feminist pie I cared most about: good thing, too, because the ERA was never going to get ratified. (Talking to you, Arizona, and a dozen more.) Soon after Alta asked her question about linens I was married with four stepchildren, making decisions to do laundry instead of writing, cook instead of writing, go to work instead of writing, take care of children instead of writing. Being a woman was a major obstacle to being a writer for me and for many others.

I couldn’t even decide my own identity. At a 1972 memorial reading for Kenneth Patchen, that great and undervalued American poet, the program listed me as Pat Keuning. It will interest Denver poetry buffs to know that in the program, organized by Henry Hough, I read with James Ryan Morris, Tony Scibella and Larry Lake among others. I was one of the new hippie kids, startled by the rowdiness of the crowd, some of whom had been drinking. Their Patchen was apparently not the one I loved.

In 1981, at something billed as a Chicano Poetry Reading, I had the honor of reading with Lalo Delgado and Ray Gonzalez among others and I was Pat Urioste. My first book of poems, by Patricia Keuning Urioste, had just been published. But I wasn’t a Chicana poet and that identity also passed. Meanwhile my poems continued to be small savings scraped from the corners of my busy life. Clean sheets and nothing on sheets of paper.

“The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first,” says Tillie Olsen, who published her first book at 50. As I was drafting this, I remembered the towels, took them downstairs and started them washing. In the kitchen, I paused to think about what to make for dinner. Staring into the back yard, I observed the overgrown vine on the fence, almost went out to trim it. No. I’m supposed to be writing. Get a glass of water. Back upstairs with you.

Nonetheless, things are better now. “It is remarkable,” says Virginia Woolf, “what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about.” Writing is much more enjoyable in retirement, when I don’t have to go to work every morning and a regular check arrives anyway. Writing happens in a disciplined way I never managed before. So many distractions when you’re young. I had to experience night life, bars, bands and dancing; had to man picket lines and go to jail; had to take care of children; start and stop various careers; have bad marriages—bad marriages are consuming, although I sometimes wrote because of them—had to teach, love teaching, devote my evenings and weekends to grading and planning. I had to finally, for the second book of poems in 1994, decide what my name was and stick to it.

At my computer in my own upstairs room, I’ve had a peaceful Monday morning of writing. Below my windows, a quarrel of sparrows broadcasts from the Beauty Bush. Its masses of pink blooms flutter to the ground, will soon be gone. In these post-retirement years, I have written over 100 essays and poems, translated a 360-page biography and 50 Mexican short stories. I’ve learned about revision, about patience, about how to keep domestic urges at bay until I’ve got 800 words. And I still have clean sheets.

Posted in Memoir, Writing | 4 Comments

Moments of Sunshine in My Pocket

High school kids pile into an SUV in the DSA parking lot, seats filling quickly. Three more loiter around the open back gate, not wanting to clamber into that cramped space behind the seats. Finally the boy driving has a mini-tantrum, jumps up and down and yells: “just get in so we can go for food!” They do. Jammed together, but food the magic motivator.

*

I hear a loud boom, pause, boom, at the upstairs window see a young man in the alley, apparently lifting something heavy, flipping it over: boom, pause, boom. Privacy fences do their job: limit visibility. I see the young man’s head, his arms up to push, hear the thudding sound, watch him rest, then bend so his head disappears. Phil can’t stand it, goes out to ask, “hey buddy, can’t you roll that thing?” It’s a truck tire, nearly as tall as he is. We are unclear on the concept. The young man is Scott, lives on the corner and this is his workout: flipping a giant truck tire up and down the alley. Does it once a week, he says.

*

It’s a regular socialist party at Lake Steam today: three elderly women wrapped toga style in white sheets eat lunch in the dining room. “We got to catch up with the rest of the civilized world on health care,” says one. The second asks, “We already have socialized police, fire, education—what’s the big deal?” “Right, a single payer system,” snaps the third. “And put a lid on those damn Big Pharma companies.”

*

At the Y we have finished our workout and are leaving, when we realize a group of four young men are dancing on the steps outside the front doors while another on the sidewalk films them on his phone. Then we hear the music and see they are doing Y-M-C-A. We wait until the filming ends to step outside. “Is that going viral?” Phil asks. They all laugh. “We hope so.”

*

In the last two weeks of school, I assigned my 8th grade writers a goodbye and now four vocal music students huddle around one computer, reading what Martin has written, about saying goodbye to his treble voice, and to middle school, and to the best friends he’s ever had. They have a box of tissues beside them and take turns reading aloud, choking up so someone else has to take over, all four dabbing at their eyes and reading the whole thing over again, one more time.

When I ask them to share something from their brainstormed goodbye lists, one boy says, “__________’s leaving,” and several applaud. I didn’t hear what he said, was about to ask him to repeat. But Hattie heard, knew who he meant and jumped into indignant action. “I can’t believe you said that and people applauded. How could you be so mean?” Thank God for the Hatties, without whom we’d devolve as fast as the kids in Lord of the Flies.

*

Phil gets on an elevator with one black woman, says that it’s certainly a gloomy day. “Yes,” she replies, smiling, “but I always keep some sunshine in my pocket.”

*

I am watering the flowerbed in the parking strip when a family comes walking along the sidewalk. I make sure my hose is laying flat as they approach, a tubby guy and wife, with a large dog on a tight leash, another guy who looks related to the first one, a woman and two young girls, fair-haired, probably seven and ten. As they are passing me, the tubby guy says, “you can spray the kids if you want.” “Really?” I asked. “Yeah, sure,” he says, so I flip the spray quickly, twice in their direction. Satisfying shrieks. As they move down the block, Dad calls out, “Thanks.”

*

I’m at my laptop, hear the thudding boom, pause, boom, don’t bother to look: I know who it is.

*

Taking the Quebec exit from I-70, we pass an SUV pulled onto the shoulder, smoke pouring from beneath the raised hood. A man with phone to his ear has backed 20 feet from it. Looking over my shoulder as we pass, I see orange flames leaping from the engine compartment. Before we stop at the bottom of the ramp, a semi truck and a pickup have also pulled over, their drivers getting out, one with a fire extinguisher on his shoulder, headed for the glowing flames. “Those are real men,” Phil says. Men ready to stop at a moment’s notice, prepared for action. Those are the helpers, the ones we count on in any emergency or disaster, the ones who restore faith.

Posted in Education, Memoir | 6 Comments

Retirement Advice 2016

for Mike Thornton and Gregg Painter

Celebrating the move to Byers, 1997 and I.D.s

Celebrating the move to Byers, 1997 and I.D.s

After waiting for lawn service that never came Friday afternoon, Phil and I decided to stay in, stream something on Netflix. I was draining pasta when there was a knock at the door.

Assuming it was the tardy lawn service, Phil yelled, “oh, hell no!”

I found a tall guy parking his bike on my porch, opened the door and asked, “Do you want some spaghetti?”

“No, just a glass of wine,” he replied.

“Shit, it’s Thornton,” Phil exclaimed. “We don’t have any wine. Would you settle for whiskey?”

“We’re eating,” I informed our random guest while filling a third plate, “so you’re having some.”

Soon we sat down to chicken meatballs in butternut squash sauce. The men had their Jameson’s neat with water backs. I’d as soon drink peroxide and there was no wine. I had water.

After mumbling about how we used to drop in on friends but no one does that anymore, Thornton observed, “this is working out very well.”

As he was wheeling off into the sunset, he said, “you need to write a blog of retirement advice.” Thornton is retiring this year. So is Painter. Two colleagues from DSA’s first year at the Byers building.

I retired in 2010, six years ago, had to look it up. That’s significant, isn’t it? That I no longer remember when I retired? Six years makes me experienced. I could give advice.

Nothing stays the same. The first September I felt bereft when school started, a guilty void deep in the gut. I alleviated it by taking a trip to Chicago. The feeling lessened the next year. The third it was a mere shadow flitting briefly over my mood.

Nothing changes. After retirement, you do the same things you’ve always done. You just take your time about them. I often read more than an hour before turning out the light, can you imagine?

Know thyself and thy beloved. Phil worked at home for years, was justifiably nervous over my being here during the day. I tend to interrupt his work to expound on a brilliant idea I just had or to ask for tech support or see if he wants to go get coffee. We had to make rules. Now before interrupting I ask: is this a good time? I worked in noisy, people-rich environments. Although I consider myself an introvert, I also have strong interaction needs. Phil goes for days without talking to anyone and he’s fine. I get stir crazy after seven hours. Two years ago, I started teaching one creative writing class a semester, come home happy to be sequestered again.

You gotta have a plan. That’s what I tell everyone, but my own plan was vague. I did have a list. Before I retired I wrote down all the things I wanted to do, from a month in Paris to cleaning out my files. That list was my security blanket: if I started freaking out I read it and felt reassured. Writing was on the list, of course, but in nebulous “find someone to translate” fashion.

Give yourself a break. I spent the first months puttering around—a little translating, a little essay writing, a lot of sleeping in. It was two years before I started this blog. In those two years we took five domestic trips and I was the manager of our kitchen remodel. I did transition projects: cleaned out school files, created a new workroom for myself, subbed for friends. You may not want to return to your former workplace, but for me that was always the plan. I started teaching too late to acquire sufficient retirement.

That doesn’t sound like a break? It was. Waking without an alarm. Reading the morning news at breakfast. Having a second cup of coffee. Once I settled upstairs in the back of the house, in that little room with windows on three sides, I was where I needed to be. I spent most mornings in my mini-solarium, sometimes warily feeling my way around my own writing, sometimes playing solitaire, soaking up silence. Silence! I made lunch and coffee dates with friends, engagements impossible while teaching.

Decide what you want to accomplish. Yes, my dears, you must accomplish something. Lie around on the couch or beach and you’ll be back at work or dead in two years. Remember the aforementioned list. Make one. Realize some items may be unattainable. Paris is still on my list, but I’m prepared to let it go if I must.

I started the blog in mid-2012, with the intention of writing an 800-word essay twice a month, didn’t know if I could do it. Broken writing promises litter my life like autumn leaves. But in four years, I have never missed a deadline. I prefer the Spanish word for retirement: jubilación. In my jubilation I’ve become a writer at last.

 

 

Posted in Education, Memoir, Writing | 2 Comments

On Prejudice

Listening to monologues my eighth graders have written, I sometimes hear the natural aversion of youth to age. In a catalog of things that bug her, one girl includes how annoying it is to get stuck behind slow, saggy old people at the mall, and I smile. They write such things artlessly, and few of them stop to think—wait—Ms. Dubrava’s old. Those few glance at me quickly and quickly look away.

These thirteen-year-olds are used to me. Pardon: most have now turned fourteen and would abhor my saying otherwise. I’ve been their teacher nearly a semester, a significant period in their lives. Some of them have fallen in and out of love twice during that time. I’m lucky they notice me at all with such drama underway. Besides, I try to behave in a way that distracts them from remembering I’m old. I take them on brisk walks to a nearby park to write about nature or casually admit that profanity, judiciously used, may have a place in a good piece of writing.

Because I clearly remember my own, I don’t take offense at their biased age references. My adolescent years occurred mainly in Vero Beach, Florida. I recall walking on the beach with my boyfriend, passing senior citizens and feeling a slight repulsion. Those blooming bellies, drooping butts, jellied arms and thighs! “Gross,” I probably thought, since that was a word of the moment among the young. I don’t remember. What I do recall is vowing: “I am never going to let myself look like that.”

Well, of course. I was young and firm of flesh, without having to do anything. No exercise, no diet. How could it ever be any different? And I must have thought, as do the eighth graders in my classroom now, that the appalling appearance in a bathing suit was a choice. Why, those people must have let themselves age.

Whenever I do remind the children that I’m old, they say dismissively, “Oh, no, Ms. D, you’re not.” It is a wise child who flatters she who controls his grades. But, it is also saying: “we’re making an exception for you. We don’t like saggy old people, but we like you.”

One redeeming thing about the children is they are still, at this age, relatively bias-free, at least when it comes to their teachers. Here are the key questions: Do you like them? Do you know what you’re doing in the classroom? If the answer to those two questions is yes, then they’ll think you’re fine, whether you’re old, young, or have recurring halitosis.

This matter of age discrimination makes me recall the Chicanos. Back in the movimiento days of the seventies, I was frequently the only gringa in a group of friends. Giving me a hug, they would say, “you’re not white anymore: you’re one of us.”

I was always flattered then too. But, when you think about it, it’s prejudice, isn’t it? Unpacking that attitude results in acceptance dependent on pretending you’re not who you are. Same with the kids, who if they have decided they like me, deny my being so many decades different. But like ethnicity, these decades do indeed generate difference.

I suppose it’s our natural bias to like those who resemble us, to look askance on those who do not. A girl entered my classroom wearing earbuds, mouthing words. She realized that a girl she didn’t know was singing along to the same song. Squealing with delight, they finished the lyrics together, gushed about how much they loved that song and declared each other best friends forever.

Like some others, I veered off in another direction, attraction to those unlike me. Witness my years in black and Chicano communities, or my pleasure in hanging out with eighth graders now. I imagine this “opposites attract” trait defines Americans opposed to building border walls. Perhaps it’s also a feature of a new generation: my students, born in 2002, are accepting of the range of ethnicities and genders in their midst. One girl has declared herself Lesbian. “We love you,” they say. “Do you like camping? We heard that Lesbians like camping.” It is the world they live in and I enjoy being there.

We wrote list poems this semester, one variation being a set of instructions. One of the boys wrote “How to be a good person,” but his was mostly a list of prohibitions as it turned out. Don’t ignore your friends’ texts. Don’t forget to do your homework. Things like that. It also included, “don’t tell your grandmother she’s wrinkly.” We all giggled.

Posted in Education, Humor, Memoir | 1 Comment